My Last Duchess
Introduction: The dramatic monologue “My Last Duchess’ is regarded as the best dramatic monologue in the whole range of English Literature. The speaker is the Duke of Ferrara, an important city and cultural center of Italy. The spirit of Renaissance, its intrigues, its sensuality, its greed, and cultural qualities are presented in it.
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Summary of My Last Duchess
In the parlance of an Italian Duke, who is the speaker in this short but vivid piece, had come the envoy of a count whose daughter he was negotiating to marry. The Duke was a widower, and taking his guest round the family portrait gallery, he paused before the portrait of his last Duchess and drew aside the curtain. He began to comment on the picture.
It was a fine portrait, so beautifully executed, that the form of his wife came to live in it.
Friar Pandolf who painted it had spent a lot of time and labour over that masterpiece.
At once, the Duke turned to inform his guest that he had deliberately named a Friar as the artist. This was because the look of deep and intense passion on the Duchess’s face always intrigued onlookers. It was clear that they sensed something behind that look other than love for her husband; they would have asked questions about it if only they had the courage. The mention of a Friar’s name helped to check fancies about an affair between the Duchess and the painter.
It was obvious to anyone that the look on her countenance was caused by something more than the mere presence of her husband in the studio. Its joy was so clear and bright. But it might have been caused by a casual remark from the painter; either a suggestion that her mantle should not cover her wrist so much or that it was impossible to reproduce on canvas the faint, evanescent flush that suffused her face. In her case, even such a formal, courteous remark was sufficient to call forth a bush of happiness.
She had an innocent, happy nature that could be pleased easily. Her earnest, impassioned, and yet smiling glance went alike to everyone. She who sent it knew no distinction of things or persons. Everything pleased her; everyone could arouse her gratitude. The same smile lighted her face again when he, her husband, showed her special favour as when some over-zealous fool plucked a branch of the cherry-tree rich with leaves and fruits and presented it to her. The bright sky at sunset or the white mule she rode seemed to arouse the same smile of pleasure too. It seemed to him from her manner of showing her gratitude for such simple things that she ranked his gift the “gift of a nine hundred years’ old name”, with that of everyone else.
Naturally, this outlook filled him with anger that turned soon to disgust. It was beneath his dignity to complain about such things. He could have admonished her and corrected her, and perhaps she would have submitted willingly to his wishes. But this would have meant lowering himself from his wonted dignity. All the time her attitude grew increasingly disgusting. So he decided to act. He gave the necessary orders, and she never smiled again. He put her in a state where she could worry or insult him no more. In plain words he got her killed.
Thus, having told the story of his last Duchess, the Duke turned to more immediate things. First, there was the dowry that his prospective bride was to fetch him: he knew that it would be adequate, coming as it did from such a munificent man as the count. Anyway, his main attraction was the beautiful lady and not the fortune she would bring.
With that, he turned to more down his guest. As a gesture of carelessness, intended to suggest his indifference to such things, he pointed in passing to a rare statute in bronze, the figure of Neptune taming his sea-horse.
Choose the correct answer from the three alternatives given below each question :
1. ‘My Last Duchess’ is:
(a) a dramatic monologue
(b) an autobiographical poem
(c) a dramatic lyric
2. ‘My Last Duchess’ was published in :
3. The Speaker in the poem is (a) Duke of Ferrara:
(b) Claus of Innsbruck
4. The story of the poem belongs to :
(a) Nineteenth Century
(b) Sixteenth Century
(c) Twentieth Century
5. The Duke, in the poem, is talking to :
(a) the Count
(b) a court official
(c) a messenger
6. The portrait has :
(a) smile on the lips
(b) deep passionate look in the eyes
(c) glow on her face
7. The Duke :
(a) discards the portrait
(b) hates the portrait (c) is justly proud of it
8. The Duke had :
(a) graceful nature
(b) royal nature (c) childish and foolish nature
9. The Duchess was :
(a) unfaithful to her husband
(b) overpowered by her husband
(c) free to enjoy her life
10. The portrait was painted by :
(a) Fra Pandolf
(b) Claus of lunsbruck
1. (a) dramatic monologue
2. (c) 1842
3. (a) Duke of Ferrara
4. (b) sixteenth century
5. (c) a messenger
6. (b) deep passionate look in the eyes
7. (c) is justly proud of it
8. (c) childish and foolish nature
9. (b) overpowered by her husband
10. (a) Fra Pandolf
In this section, we will let you practice to analyse and appreciate a given text and also to understand poetic devices
My Last Duchess was published in Dramatic Lyrics in late November 1842. In the collection of 1849, it was made one of the Dramatic Romances and Lyrics, and in the rearrangement of the poems in 1863, it was put under Dramatic Romances. In the first publications, it was entitled Italy, and it was in the 1849 edition that the present title My Last Duchess was given.
Browning has represented the Duchess as a pathetic, stifled figure, rendered incapable by circumstances of giving expression to her talents and feelings. It has been suggested that it is based somewhat on the life that Elizabeth Barrett, later Mrs. Browning, lived in Wimpole Street. Her talents and passions were stifled by the tyranny of her father.
The Duke is addressing the envoy of a Count whose daughter he is going to marry. He draws his attention to the portrait of his last Duchess, now dead. He calls it a portrait done by Friar Pandolf, and then qualifies his statement with the remarks that he did so by design, because he had noticed that visitors were intrigued by the expression on the Duchess’s face, and almost wanted to ask what caused it. Most of them restrained that curiosity because they dared not wound his feelings.
The Duke means that often people, observing the expressions of passion on the Duchess’s face, were suspicious of an affair between her and the painter. He generally, therefore, attributed the painting to one Friar Pandolf, since a clergyman’s name would remove all suspicion. He was also particular that no one but he drew the curtain to display the portrait.
He remarks on her nature. Instead of understanding her amiable nature, he says that she was a silly childish woman who was readily impressed and pleased. She treated all favours alike with a smile ready for everyone. The Duke tells the envoy that the sweet smiles on the lady’s face were not for her husband alone. The bright redness visible on the lady’s cheeks was very unique. The Duke explains why the portrait of the Duchess has a blush on her cheeks. Many people think that the blush appeared on her cheeks because her husband the Duke was present there when the portrait was being made. The Duke tells the envoy that the blush on her face was not because he was present there. There was some other reason for it, perhaps some compliment by the artist occasioned that happy spot on her face. The artist might have complimented her on her dress. He might have said that her loose cloak covered her wrist too much.
The poem shows us the inside of a typical Renaissance character typified by an unscrupulous and proud Duke. Talking to the envoy of a Count whose daughter he wishes to marry, the Duke shows him the portrait of his previous wife who is dead. He remarks on her nature. Instead of understanding her amiable nature, he says that she was a silly childish woman who was readily impressed and pleased, who treated all favours alike with a smile ready for everyone.
The Duke was annoyed with the Duchess because she did not feel thankful to him for the honour he bestowed on her by marrying her. Even the gifts to her by other people and those given by him made her equally happy. She thanked both with equal warmth. The Duke failed to understand how she could equate his gifts with everybody’s gifts. The Duchess was graceful for the least kindness done to her and when she thanked the people, the Duke, though he did not get angry at that, did not however feel happy. Being absolutely unaffected by such feelings of gratitude towards others, the Duke naturally could not understand or appreciate her attitude.
The Duke did not mind that she thanked people for their good acts. But she did not give him a special treatment while thanking others. He was her husband and belonged to a family of 900 years standing and reputation. He was shocked that she treated him on par with other people. Thus she disgraced his royal name and lineage. It was a mean act by the Duchess. He could have pointed it to the Duchess who might have corrected if she thought it fit. But then he did not like to do that. It would have been his insult had he done so.
The Duke tells the Count’s envoy that the reputation which the Count has for splendid generosity is enough to guarantee that all his claims regarding dowry will be granted. The Duke further clarifies his remarks lest he should be misunderstood. He tells the envoy that even though his first and foremost attraction is the charming daughter of the Count, still he has mentioned about the dowry because he has great faith in the generosity of the Count. While going down he draws the envoy’s attention to a bronze-statue of Neptune-the sea-god. He tells the envoy that this pose of Neptune taming a sea-horse is a rare one. He also informs the envoy that the bronze-statue was made for the Duke by Claus of Innsbruck. The Duke wants the dowry to be worthy of his status, or at least what he considers it to be. It is significant that Browning makes him speak first of the dowry and then of the lady. That shows which is more important to him. Obviously, love has no place in such contracts entered into by him. We expect that in a short while he would treat his second wife in the way he treated the first. The same fate awaits her.
The Dramatic Monologue was used by Browning with amazing skill and success. Browning did not invent the dramatic monologue, but he made it specially his own, and no one else has ever put such rich and varied material into it.
In other words, he could dispense with all, ‘external machinery’ of action and plot, and concentrate his attention on, “the incidents in the development of a soul”. Unhampered by the limitations of the stage, he could now depict, “the phenomena of the mind”. Browning made this form entirely his own, because it suited his genius, and also because it had a number of other advantages. It is an oblique or indirect mode of expression, and so the poet could freely express his views without fear of hostile criticism. The views were expressed by other characters, and so they could not be imputed to him. Moreover, he knew that advice is given directly, “glances off athwart the mind,” while truths expressed indirectly set men thinking and so have their due effect. The form enabled him to exercise his dramatic bent freely, as well as to play effectively his role as a teacher.
The Dramatic Monologue is, ‘dramatic’, because it is the utterance of imaginary characters and not of the poet himself, and because in it character is developed not through any description on the part of the poet, but through a conflict between the opposite thoughts and emotions of the character himself. It is a ‘monologue’ because it is a conversation of a single individual with himself (Mono’ means ‘one’, and ‘Logue’ means ‘conversation’). The form is also referred to as monodrama.
The salient features of the dramatic monologue are best brought out through comparison and contrast both with the drama proper and the soliloquy. The dramatic monologue differs widely from the drama in its purpose and its method. In the drama the action is external; in the monologue, the action is entirely internal. The thoughts and emotions of the individual character are the actors, and his soul is the stage. The monologue develops character not through outward action and conflict as in the drama, but through the clash of motives in the soul of the speaker, and with this end in view, a moment of crisis is chosen, a movement when his personality is most active.
In each monologue, the speaker is placed in the most momentous or critical situation of his life, and the monologue embodies his reactions to this situation. Unlike a dramatist, Browning does not begin slowly with an action leading to the crisis, rather he plunges headlong into the crisis. For this reason, his monologues have an abrupt, but very arresting opening, and at the same time, what has gone before is suggested clearly or brought out through retrospective meditation and reflection. Thus My Last Duchess opens with a reference to a picture of the dead Duchess, with clear indications that it is being shown to someone. Similarly, Fra Lippo Lippi has a very dramatic beginning. This abrupt beginning is followed by self-introspection on the part of the speaker, and the whole gamut of his moods, emotions, reflections, and meditations is given. The speaker’s thoughts range freely over the past and the future and so there is no logical and chronological development. The past and the future are fused and focused in the present, and the unity is emotional rather than logical.
Form and Style
Browning was always weaving and modeling and inventing new forms. Among all his two hundred to three hundred poems, it would scarcely be an exaggeration to say that there are half as many different verse forms as there are different poems. As soon as a new idea entered his head, he tried to invent a new form to express it, and in this way, he created a large number of quite novel and quite admirable artistic forms. His business was, soul-dissection, and for this purpose, he developed and perfected the dramatic monologue, and used it most effectively.
The poet who invents such forms is a ‘maker’, in the true sense; he makes other poets. Browning was not indifferent to technical beauty, or beauty of form; he invented new forms, lovely in their own way, and it is an entirely different matter that others did not like the kind of beauty he created.
He always has a noble end in view and attains it completely. There is no characteristic of his work more admirable or more rare than the unity, the compactness, and completeness, the skill and care in construction and definiteness in the impression of each poem. For example, almost all the poems in the volume Men and Women are designed, constructed and finished with the skill of an architect. There is no doubt, as that often his composition is broken up and over-crowded. Too many side-issue are introduced, everything that he imagines is cast upon the canvas, there is too little of artistic selecting and ordering of material. But all this seeming lack of selection and restraint is not the result of carelessness, rather such details and digressions are perfectly appropriate in their place and contribute to the perfection of the whole. More often than not, they are integral to the purpose of Browning. They result from the richness of his thought, and not from faulty craftmanship. There is a marvelous sense of proportion in the importance assigned to various features in his dramatic monologues; every element plays a significant but not over-emphasized part: hence the unity of atmosphere and effect.
The beauty of form in poetry also depends on the style and diction of a poet. Browning was a highly original genius, his style is entirely individual, and so for want of a better name, it is called Browning-esque.
He uses the smallest number of words that his meaning allows. In the very beginning of his career, he was once charged with verbosity, and since then, he contended himself with the use of two words where he would rather have used ten. This dread of being diffuse resulted in compression and condensation.
Answer the following questions in 6 to 10 sentences :
1. ‘Browning did not invent the Monologue, but he perfected it? Elucidate.
Answer: Dramatic Monologue was not very popular and known to everyone before. Browning used it with intricate skill and perfection. He used this poetic form in critical situations in the life of a character. The reactions of the character are analysed and modified so as to reveal the real worth of the character.
2. Write a note on Browning’s art of characterisation.
Answer: Browning is basically a poet of situations. His poetic characters are varied and wide. His characters are as humane as that of Shakespeare. They belong not only to England but Italy, France, Germany, and Spain. The men and women who live and move in the new world of his creation are lifelike.
3. Comment on Browning’s style.
Answer: The poems of Browning show sparing use of adjectives. He uses mono-syllabic words wherever possible. His style is condensed with the use of abbreviations and omissions. For example, ‘in’, ‘on’ and ‘of’ become ‘i’, ‘o’ in his poetry. His style can be termed as telegraphic style. He uses Latin expressions and allusions to little known sources.
4. Discuss Browning’s diction and versification.
Answer: Browning always seems rugged and fantastic. His ruggedness is justified sometimes by the subject, whereas sometimes the use of a broken. varying, irregular verse is essential to convey the particular emotion or the impression which the poet wants to convey. Browning had a very keen ear for a particular kind of staccate music, for a kind of galloping rhythm. Often his verse sprawls like the trees, dances like the dust, it is top-heavy like the toad-stool. He uses double rhymes to create grotesque effects.
5. Comment on the distinctive features of Browning’s poetry.
Answer: Browning is a very original and skillful poet. He treats consonants as the backbone of his language, and hence, as the essential feature of his rhymes. He uses double and often triple rhymes to create humorous and satirical effects. He uses the measures most appropriate to his subject, whether it be a blank verse or the heroic rhyme verse.
Additional Questions of My Last Duchess” by Robert Browning
1. The poem is written in the first person. What is the name of an extended speech by one speaker to another character?
The poem is a dramatic monologue.
2. The poem’s lines do not end at the end of a line, but rather they continue into the next. What is the term for the use of sentences and other grammatical constructs that do not necessarily conclude at the end of a line?
The term is called enjambment.
3. Describe the Duke’s character.
Answers may vary. Example: He is egotistic and jealous. He was controlling over his last wife and hints that he plans on controlling his future wife as well.
4. To whom is the Duke speaking?
The Duke is speaking to an unseen audience, a servant of another lord whose daughter he is aiming to wed.
5. What is the tone of the poem?
The tone of the poem is one of unintentional revelation. The speaker is revealing, unconsciously, internal character flaws to his audience.
6. According to the speaker, what was it that brought a blush to the Duchess’s cheek?
The speaker says that the Duchess was “too easily impressed.” A kind word or deed from any man would draw a blush to the cheek, and kind words from her mouth, which made the Duke jealous.
7. How did the speaker feel about the Duchess’s behavior? What actions resulted from these feelings?
The speaker, her husband, did not like the fact that she gave the same smile and kind words to others as she did to her husband. After this had gone on for some time, the speaker says he “have commands,” and the “smiles stopped altogether.” Unfortunately, the smiles seemed to stop not only to others, but also to him.
8. Explain the significance of the statue of Neptune alluded to at the poem’s conclusion.
The statue represents the god of the sea taming a sea horse. The statue is meant to reflect the Duke’s own goals of taming his wife and seemingly succeeding, albeit through her death.
Let Us Sum Up
In this unit, you have acquired practice in
• understanding the trends and movements of literature in the Victorian Age.
• analysing and appreciating a poetic text; and
• understanding literary devices used by Robert Browning
1. The Last Duchess’ is a perfect example of Browning’s poetic acumen of writing a dramatic monologue.
2. Comment of the style and form of The Last Duchess
looking: appearance of the pointing
a wonder: a wonderful work of art
worked busily a day: the portrait was painted in one day
look at her: to admire the pointing of Duchess
piece : portrait
Fra Pandolf: the name of the painter who painted the portrait
Fra: from, friar, a monk
earnest : in good sense
By design : intentionally
read: examined carefully
pictured countenance: the face of the last duchess as shown in portrait
puts by: removes
I: the Duke
You: the messenger
as if they durst: if they had the courage to do so
such a glance: you are not the first person to ask
spot of joy: a faint blush caused by pleasure
mantle : cloak
laps : covers
faint half blush: the reddish glow
such stuff: such remarks
were courtesy: they were merely courtesy
calling up: taking meaningless remarks seriously
it was all one: she has no sense of discrimination
too soon made glad: easily pleased
my favour: ornaments given by me
the dropping of daylight: an hour of sunset
officious fool: some foolish admirer of hers
terrace: a raised walk or drive
the approving speech: a few words of appreciation
ranked: considered of the same value
stoop to blame: loss of dignity by criticism foolish conduct
trifling: foolish, childish conduct
your will: your desires
to such a one: to a frivolous childish person like the Duchess
set her wits to yours: at once began discussing
forsooth: at once
made excuses: try to justify her conduct
chuse : choose
passed her: came across her
commands: ordered the duchess not to smile an everyone then all smiles stopped together: this indicates the tragedy
please you rise: will you please get up
the company: meeting
munificence: generosity, liberality
ample warrant: sufficient guarantee
just pretence: reasonable expectation or claim
disallowed : rejected
avowed: said, declared
fair : beautiful
starting: in the beginning
ibject : purpose, desire
Neptune: the sea-god in classical mythology
a rairly: a rare statue
Claus of Innsbruck: an imaginary sculptor
bronze: a metal compounded out of copper and brass